The Wonderful World of Owls: Part II

In my last blog post, I wrote about owls that live underground and Snowy Owl chicks that grow faster than the national debt. Now I’m ready to reveal the world of ghost owls and talk about how young owls can climb trees. As usual, there will be no puns or ridiculous stories in this post.

Barn owl in flight at night

Barn Owl aka “Ghost Owl”

Barn Owls are sometimes known by the nickname “Ghost Owls” due to their white coloration, their nocturnal nature, and their raspy screeching. Barn Owls get their name from their tendency to hang out with nobles at large chain bookstores in barns. They are found almost worldwide, though they are in decline in some regions. Barn Owls stand around a foot high and generally weigh a little over a pound. These owls have excellent hearing, as their heart-shaped facial disk helps funnel sound toward their asymmetrical ears, creating a parabola effect which amplifies sound waves. Lab experiments have revealed that Barn Owls are capable of finding prey in total darkness! They are also great at controlling pests like mice and rats, as they often prey upon small mammals. Like other owls, they swallow prey whole and cast up pellets of indigestible parts, such as bones. Their call is a raspy screech and they sometimes produce low chittering noises. To be honest, we should probably name them screech owls, as the calls of actual screech owls sound quite pleasant.

Barn owl

Barn owl with prey

In my experiences working with Barn Owls up close, I’ve seen that they are wonderful fliers with beautiful buffy brown and white wings. The babies on the other hand, are balls of fluff with gray faces. I’m currently helping to raise a baby barn owl and two young barn owls that were born at the World Bird Sanctuary. The two youngsters are actually different races – Orion is American and Whisper is European. Orion is noisy and boisterous, often climbing around his enclosure, while Whisper is quieter and well-behaved. The baby is growing up fast and her feathers will soon start filling in.

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Orion and Whisper looking out the window.

So can young owls really climb trees? Yes they can! Owls that are not yet ready to fly need a mechanism to escape danger from the ground. Some young owls are able to spread out their wings and use their beak and talons to climb up trees! Check out this news article that includes pictures of a young Great Horned Owl that climbed up a tree after falling from its nest. You can also search for climbing owl on Youtube and see some short videos of owls in action! Below is a Barn Owl that decided to shimmy up a tree.

Juvenile barn owl climbing up tree using wings and feet

Now that you’ve learned about Barn Owls, maybe you can visit a nearby barn at night and find an owl! Though I’ve handled these owls, I’ve never actually seen one in the wild. Perhaps I will find one soon! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dress in white tonight and make raspy noises while climbing up a tree.

 

The Wonderful World of Owls

Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament? Did you know that most owls use the nests of other creatures? Did you know that some owls live in underground tunnels? Did you know that young owls can climb trees? Did you know that there are “Ghost Owls”? Did you know that one of the most vicious gangster owls was Owl Capone? Time to learn about some cool owls!

Young burrowing owls

Owls are generally solitary birds, except during the breeding season. If you do happen to find a group of owls hanging out together, you’ve managed to find a parliament! Though they are more efficient at accomplishing tasks than many human parliaments, most owls don’t build their own nests, but use abandoned Red-tailed Hawk nests or tree cavities created by woodpeckers. Female Short-eared Owls will often form a nest in the ground and arrange feathers and grass around the mound, whereas Snowy Owls will hollow out depressions on the tundra floor. These owls choose their nesting sites so that the surrounding vegetation or hills will help conceal their nests. An exception to these examples is the Burrowing Owl. These owls utilize burrows created by badgers, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, or other creatures which dig underground tunnels. Sometimes Burrowing Owls will excavate their own burrows or even nest in PVC pipes! I guess you should be careful when constructing potato guns. Interestingly enough, some owls will place mammal dung at the entrances of burrows! Some scientists believe this is used to attract dung beetles, which will serve as food for the young. Other researchers suggest that the odor may deter potential predators. You probably shouldn’t try this at home!

Short-eared owl at nest with chicks

Female Short-eared Owl with chicks at nest. These owls get their name from the short tufts (which are not ears) that project above the head.

Burrowing owl peeking out from burrow

This Burrowing Owl appears to be auditioning for Angry Birds!

Burrowing owl feeding chicks at den

Parent feeding young Burrowing Owls.

Once the eggs have been laid, incubated, and hatched, the parents spend a lot of time hunting. Young owls grow very rapidly and needs lots of food to keep up with their high metabolism. The chicks of ground-nesting owls may eat close to their weight and increase in size by over 50% in a single day! This rapid development is important as owl chicks on the ground may be vulnerable to predators such as foxes and wolves. After they are about 2-3 weeks old, young Short-eared and Snowy Owl chicks begin moving away from the nest, though the parents still feed and care for them. Chicks are often fed rodents, and some owl species experience population explosions when there is an abundance of valuable food sources. For example, Snowy Owls sometimes experience population booms through large clutches of eggs when there are high numbers of lemmings in the summer. These irruptions may drive northern-dwelling owls further south than normal. I sometimes venture farther away from home if there is a good supply of delicious ice cream.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Snowy Owl chicks at nest, 2. Female with two owlets, 3. Female in flight, 4. Male feeding young. Females generally have more dark markings than males.

Well, I’m getting tired and tomorrow I have to help care for the raptors at the World Bird Sanctuary. Hopefully you’ve learned some interesting things about these amazing birds! My next blog will be about owls climbing trees and acting like ghosts in the night. I suppose that’s owl for now, but don’t worry, owl be back!

Great horned owl portrait

This Great Horned Owl is not impressed by my bad puns.

My Neighbors are Raptors

I recently began working with the World Bird Sanctuary on a project to improve their trail network. The sanctuary cares for many birds of prey and is located in the St. Louis area in Missouri. Check out their Facebook page to see cool pictures and videos! My work with birds began with an internship at the sanctuary in 2010. That experience stirred my passion for conservation and birds and influenced the career decisions I’ve made over the past 6+ years. From handling a Golden Eagle, to marching up to 12 miles a day in the hot sun along the Gulf Coast, to being held-up at gunpoint while doing bird surveys on a Navy base, I’ve had some interesting experiences working with birds. Besides, who wouldn’t want to spend their life working with birds after being bitten and scratched by ravens, hawks, eagles, owls, and vultures? Cleaning up bird poop and preparing fine meals by gutting fish, rabbits, rats, and venison is also a bonus.

Some of the raptors that I worked with during my internship in 2010.

I’m staying on site and my room is connected to a building which houses some of the raptors which are trained for education. Many of the raptors kept at the sanctuary either cannot be released into the wild due to injuries, or have been raised by the sanctuary for educational purposes. During the day, many of the birds here spend time outside in weathering areas, which allow them to get some fresh air and sunshine. At night, they are moved indoors and provided dinner. Seeing powerful birds up close and playing a part in their conservation is an awesomely rewarding experience! There are also a number of birds staying in mews, which are structures built to house raptors. Right now, my neighbors include Bald Eagles, hawks, owls, and vultures. There are also two young Barn Owls next door that will potentially become educational flyers and ambassadors for the sanctuary. Finally, there are two Thick-billed Parrots which like to pretend they are Laughing Kookaburras. As you might imagine, my “neighborhood” is not very quiet!

A few of my new neighbors. Clockwise from top left – Livia the Red-tailed Hawk, Patriot the Bald Eagle, Desi the Hooded Vulture, and Goblin the Barn Owl.

Last night, I had a very tiny visitor – a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. There are a number of songbirds that live in the area as well as some groundhogs, possums, and a family of Raccoons! I’m fortunate to have such interesting neighbors and am looking forward to working closely with raptors again. As I’m finishing this blog, I can hear Orion (one of the young Barn Owls next door) making loud rasping noises. His roommate Whisper is quieter and rarely makes a sound. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a bunch of bird calls and eat some rats to fit in with my neighbors.

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The Bower of Love

Many birds are known for their melodic songs, bright colors, and courtship rituals, but did you know that bowerbirds can build stick castles? Did you know that some bowerbirds will actually paint their structures and decorate them with natural and man-made objects?  Time to learn about some amazing bird engineers!

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In the forests of Australia and New Guinea, there some birds that kick up the creativity and wow factor during courtship through structural engineering. Bowerbirds are comprised of about 20 species and are named for the elaborate “bowers” that the males build to attract females. I should point out that bowers are not nests and the male does not help raise the young. Male bowerbirds gather all kinds of materials to add to the grandeur of their castles. Males will arrange an assortment of sticks, leaves, moss, colorful flowers, rocks, coins, and even plastic bottlecaps or toys to impress the ladies! Constructing a good bower takes a lot of hard work! Sometimes male bowerbirds will use a theme when designing their bower. Presenting the petals of brightly-colored flowers is commonly done by flowerbirds bowerbirds.

Bower of a Vogelkop bowerbird decorated with natural and man-made objects Decorated bower of Vogelkop bowerbird

Image result for bowerbird  Vogelkop bowerbird male, in bower arranging ornaments with habitat view

Some male bowerbirds may add color to their bowers by chewing up berries! The birds use the juice to stain their bowers! Some species, like the Satin Bowerbird, even color-code their structures! Satin Bowerbirds seem to prefer blue and will collect blue items such as berries, feathers, flowers, insects, and shells. This means that male Satin Bowerbirds are quite annoying to face in Mariokart. After the males have finished creating their palaces, females will come up to the bowers and inspect them. If a female is impressed with the male’s work, she will mate with him and then move off to build a nest. If the male’s design doesn’t meet the female’s standards, she will move on to another bower. Males will sometimes attempt to encourage a female to visit by dancing and singing. According to researchers, some bowerbirds arrange their bowers to produce optical illusions that influence visiting females! Check out this link from BBC to learn more about this! Experienced males may win the affections of multiple females over the course of the breeding season. Occasionally, a veteran male may hire a group of young bowerbirds to help defend his bower from intruders while he gathers supplies. These defenders are called bower rangers. Ducks for cover.

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              Welcome to my bower!                                            Everything is blue

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           Must find more blue items!                                         Hey ladies! I’m rich!

I hope you found this small glimpse into the world of bowerbirds interesting! They are certainly unique and fascinating birds. If you’re interested in seeing them in action, check out the videos by BBC on Youtube. Did you know that a new movie about male bowerbirds and their quest to win females is coming out soon? It’s called Lord of the Wings: The Two Bowers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some blueberries to decorate my new log cabin.

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Look at me! I have a berry!

What Does the Fox Really Say?

A few years ago, the Norwegian duo Ylvis used a combination of techno and electronic dance music to produce a viral video about what a fox sounds like. Now their hit was obviously written in jest, but what does a fox actually sound like? What about a moose? What bird is commonly used for jungle sounds in movies? What creature can mimic car alarms? This blog will examine some interesting sounds in nature, while providing some fascinating facts and stories along the way.

Red fox in snow, side profile  Red fox cubs at den entrance

You may be familiar with the fact that foxes are Canids and are related to dogs. For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to focus on the Red Fox, which is commonly found in North America, Eurasia, Australia, and even portions of northern Africa. Red Foxes are  not picky eaters, and will consume rabbits, hares, small mammals, birds, eggs, grubs, fruit, carrion, and even trash! They adapt fairly well to a variety of environments and utilize dens for sleeping and raising young. Their bushy tails are capable of sensing underground movements through specialized hair sensors located near the tip. Okay, I made that up. So what does the fox say? Red Foxes can make some high-pitched barking noises and squeals. During the mating season, a fox may produce some unearthly screams to communicate with a partner. Males are called dogs and females are called vixens. Check out the clip below to hear some fox sounds!

Red fox carrying brown trout prey

Foxes sometimes go fishing.

Most moose calls sound similar to cow calls, with some deep bellowing and grunting. Moose are often found in forests close to water and enjoy munching on plants and twigs. Moose are the largest living species of deer, with males capable of growing up close to 7 feet high (not counting the antlers) and weighing over 1400 pounds! Apparently moose are often called “elk” in parts of Europe and Asia, which makes me wonder what name people use for elk. Anyway, do you know what my favorite moose is? White Chocolate Moose.

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If you’ve ever watched a movie that was set in the jungle, you’ve probably heard the call of the Laughing Kookaburra. Kookaburra are members of the esteemed Kingfisher family and are native to Australia, living primarily in eucalyptus forests. They have a loud, powerful call that has been described as sounding like human laughter, hence their name. The calls are used for territorial purposes and are often used near dusk and dawn, earning kookaburras the nickname “Bushman’s Clock”. Unlike some of their relatives, kookaburras do not usually eat fish, preferring to feast on small birds, mice, reptiles, and invertebrates.

Laughing kookaburra with prey in beak

Laughing kookaburra family group

There is a lot of laughter when the family gets together.

Finally we come to the Superb Lyrebird. I’m not sure if this bird can mimic a lyre, but it is capable of some astonishing imitations, including chainsaws and car alarms! Native to eastern Australia, lyrebirds are quite large for songbirds, with males capable of growing to lengths of over 3 feet. Males have large tails with fancy feathers and plumes that are used in courtship displays. Superb Lyrebirds generally eat invertebrates and are often found in eucalyptus forests, much like kookaburras! Some researchers believe that the size of a male’s vocabulary may indicate fitness and impact his attractiveness to females. Check out the cool video below to watch and listen as a male lyrebird performs his imitations! You’ll also get to hear kookaburra calls!

This is just a small taste of the wonderful symphonies found in nature. Hopefully you’ve learned something and don’t have that catchy song about foxes stuck in your head. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to attract some attention by mimicking a chain saw.

Superb lyrebird

I Conquered My Nemesis

In a recent post, I wrote about my nemesis; a crafty bird with a dark mask that had eluded me at every turn for over 3 years. There had been a couple of occasions where I heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler singing, but I was unable to catch even a glimpse of him. There were whispers, legends really, that these warblers could be found at certain sites, but my pursuits proved unfruitful. Last week, I stumbled upon some recent records that indicated my nemesis was holed up with a number of his relatives along a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. Along with my father, I set off in the morning to find my nemesis under the guise of a nice hike in the woods. 

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Shortly after we began hiking the trail, I heard was I was eagerly listening for; the buzzy “Beer beer bee!” of a Black-throated Blue. As to be expected with a clever nemesis, we were unable to get a bead on his location among the treetops. Confident that we would have ample opportunities, I moved on down the trail. A few minutes later, I heard another one singing and my razor-sharp eyes caught a quick flash of movement. Pulling my binoculars up to my eyes, I finally saw my nemesis for the first time. The moment felt so sweet, and I realized that the years of searching and disappointment had culminated in a great victory. I watched the warbler forage among the leaves and then continued hiking, stopping to see other birds and the creeks along the path. Sometime later, a Black-throated Blue Warbler actually came out around some bushes about 5 feet away and chopped down an insect while I watched. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a picture with my phone in time, but it was still a cool experience. I ended up seeing 4 males and a female, and also heard about 9 other males! I also saw Winter Wrens for the first time, which was a nice bonus. As I was hiking back to my car, I heard the nasally call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the distance, but could not locate his position. Perhaps he will become my new nemesis, but for now, I’m going to revel in my victory.

Black-throated blue warbler Black-throated blue warbler male singing

Male Black-throated Blues are quite handsome.

Male red-breasted nuthatch

Is this my new nemesis?

An ice cream celebration is certainly in my future. If you have a nemesis, keep pursuing him/her and don’t give up. Be persistent, even when disappointment strikes and eventually your efforts will be rewarded. Unless you’re trying to catch a porcupine with your mouth. And if your nemesis continues to elude you, you can always say in a deep gravelly voice, “I’ll get you next time Gadget . . . next time.”

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Birds in Pop Culture

What famous superheroes and villains have bird-like abilities or appearances? How many professional sports teams in the U.S. incorporate birds into their logo? What bird call is often used by shows and movies to represent both vultures and eagles?  Why do storks carry babies? How large are the eagles in Lord of the Rings? Can roadrunners really outrun coyotes? This blog will dive into the influence of birds in pop culture and reveal some interesting facts. I’ll try my best not to make up stories along the way. 

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Who wouldn’t want to fly like an eagle?

We seem to be in the golden age of superheroes. The upcoming slate of movies is extensive, not to mention the dozens of movies that came out in the last few years.  Superhero TV shows are also rising, and there seems to be no end in sight. You probably know that many superbeings can fly like an eagle, but what about a vulture? The upcoming Spiderman flick is set to have a villain named The Vulture, who uses an electromagnetic harness and wings to increase his strength and take flight. Vultures are often excellent fliers, using updrafts from cliff faces or rising currents of warm air called thermals to soar and glide across the sky with minimal flapping. Unlike the Spiderman villain, vultures are not deadly killers and prefer to scavenge on carrion. Birds of prey are often viewed as strong and fierce, so it’s not surprising that two of the more famous “bird” superheroes are Falcon and Hawkman. Falcon is shown in the recent Marvel movies to have sharp vision and the ability to fly and dive at high speeds using special technology. The real-life Peregrine Falcon is the fastest creature on earth and can dive at speeds of over 220 mph!

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Left – Marvel hero Falcon. Right – speed hero Peregrine Falcon.

Image result for vulture spiderman  Turkey vulture stretching its wings

Vultures

At least 15 pro sports teams in the U.S. include a bird in some version of their logo, ranging from songbirds to raptors to . . . the Mighty Ducks! There is even a soccer team in Minnesota that uses a loon in its logo! If they turn off the lights in the arena and play a loon call, that could be eerie and intimidate their opponents. There are also some really interesting bird choices for some college teams. Among my favorites are the Endicott Power Gulls, the Oglethorpe Stormy Petrels, and the Oregon Tech Hustlin’ Owls. There are also over 70 collegiate teams that use some kind of eagle in their name, which brings me to my next point. Most of the time when an eagle is pictured in a show or movie, the call used is that of a Red-tailed Hawk. One possible reason for this is that the Bald Eagle has a wimpy sounding call, while the screaming call of the Red-tail sounds more fierce. I’ve even noticed that Red-tailed Hawk calls are used for vultures in scenes from Westerns!

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The exact origin of the myth that storks carry babies is unclear, but the stories most likely originated from German folklore. This concept became more widespread after a story about storks was written by Hans Christian Anderson. I just read the tale and . . . well let’s just say that the story is unusual and a little disturbing. Anyway, storks have been unfairly villainized due to their evil deeds in Lord of the Rings. There is a sword named “Sing” that glows and plays bird songs every time a stork is near. I guess you want me to put a stork in this joke? I will as soon as I finish eating some stork chops. Speaking of Lord of the Rings, giant eagles play small, but important roles in The Hobbit and in The Return of the King. The movies portray them as very large and impressive birds, but what about Tolkien’s books? There is one reference from the Silmarillion that states that Thorondor, the mightiest of the eagles, had a wingspan of 30 fathoms. As one fathom = six feet, Thorondor’s wings stretched about 180 feet!! Just the wind force from him flapping his wings could have probably taken out quite a few enemies! In comparison, a Golden Eagle has a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet.

White stork landing with nesting material Proof: Gandalf Planned on Flying to Mount Doom

Left – White Stork preparing for babies by practicing with a stick. Right – art showing Gandalf riding on an eagle in LOTR.

Now for the answer to the question that you’ve been dying to know: could Roadrunner truly beat Wile E Coyote in a footrace? Coyotes can reach speeds over 40 mph, while the Greater Roadrunner can run about 15-20 mph. However, Roadrunner was much larger than the average roadrunner and had really long legs, so I believe it’s possible that he could run close to 50 mph. On a side note, roadrunners are most commonly found in deserts in the southwestern U.S., which is why many of the classic cartoons were set in the desert. Also, roadrunners are related to cuckoos and are active predators, even feasting on venomous lizards, scorpions, and snakes! Roadrunners will sometimes work in pairs to kill a snake, with one bird distracting the snake while the other bird goes for the head. Roadrunners will also eat eggs, chicks, fruit, seeds, and amphibians.

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Left – Roadrunner’s giant feet help him make large strides. Right – Greater Roadrunner photo by Christopher Schwarz/Audubon Photography Awards.

Hopefully you’ve learned something from this brief foray into the world of birds in pop culture. Maybe you’ve also gained a deeper appreciation for the avian world and realized that you should never mess with a roadrunner. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to create an intimidating logo for a new sports team – the San Diego Sandpipers.